Inspired by Amazing Youth Climate Action Leaders

Sierra Student Coalition leaders in Mississippi.
© Avery Locklear

PHOTO: Leaders of the Sierra Student Coalition summer training program (SPROG) in Mississippi. Front row: (L to R) Mallory Flowers, Caitlin McClusky, Tyler Offerman, and Zach Jarjoura. Middle row: (L to R) Carey Walker, Cara Cooper, Reanna Edwards, Christina Novaton, Sarah Hodgdon, and Stephanie DuQue. Back row: (L to R) Ricardo Fuentes, Tim Harlan-Marks, and Rob Burton.

For me, organizing is about people. I love that moment when a new volunteer realizes that she has the power to effect change. That she has the power to influence decision-makers and make a positive impact in her community.

My aha moment happened as a student at Indiana University. A resident of Noxubee County, Mississippi, called the Student Environmental Action Coalition office to appeal for our help. She said that three hazardous waste facilities were trying to come into her county. One of them wanted to build an incinerator on land owned by the IU Foundation. I threw myself into the campaign to convince the university not to sell the land to the incinerator company. That incinerator was never built, and I came out of the campaign a changed person -- confident in my ability to organize for positive change in the world. I had a sense of my own power.

Last month, in Jackson, Mississippi, I had a full circle moment when I attended the Sierra Student Coalition summer program, also known as SPROG. I was blown away. This is a training program for youth, facilitated by youth. Led by Cara Cooper (26), Tyler Offerman (24), and Christina Novaton (25), the training team is a group of people who have experienced aha moments. They understand the effect they have within the global climate movement, and they are training new youth leaders to join them. It was one of my proudest moments at the Sierra Club so far to see the bright, enthusiastic SPROGers they were training get ready to take on the fossil fuel industry.

I asked the training team what they thought about the role that youth can play in leading the movement. Here is what they said:

Mallory Flowers, a 22-year-old student at the University of Alabama: "It took years for me to discover that there even was a 'movement' for environmental justice and sustainability. It wasn't until I attended SPROG that I realized that other youth were running and winning campaigns that improved their communities and local environment. Once I understood that individuals could make an impact, and that even I could be part of that change, I was hooked -- I know I'll be part of this for the rest of my life. I've spent the last few years helping to put on SPROG programs, hoping to recreate that empowering moment for other young people nationwide."

Carey Walker, a 22 year old from Ft. Myers, Florida: "The environmental movement is as multifaceted in its participants as it is broad in its implications. As a young person, I have witnessed the tenacity and passion of my peers within this movement. At SPROG I have been able to learn from youth in the movement and help foster the growth of young people as leaders. It is this enthusiastic passion of youth leadership that is the creative drive in the environmental movement and will be the key to the change necessary for a healthy and safe world."

Tyler Offerman, a 24 year old from Lexington, Kentucky: "The challenges of coping with a destabilized climate and repairing our assaulted planet, coupled with the systemic injustices and oppression perpetuated throughout our communities and through our political leaders, must be met by the questioning mouth, the keen-eye to injustice, and the open-mindedness of our young people. After all, we are the generation that has the most to lose from inaction, and young people across this country have come to realize that actions speak louder than words."

Caitlin McClusky, a 23 year old from Birmingham, Alabama: "The Sierra Student Coalition's SPROG made me realize that I had extraordinary power as a young person. Only when I learned the program had been organized for youth, by youth, that my trainers were my age, and that they were leading incredible campaigns and changing their campuses and communities for the better, did I say to myself, 'I can do that too.'"

Ricardo Fuentes, a 25 year old from McAllen, Texas: "I began questioning the actions in my life and considering that maybe there was more. The search continued for around about a year, and in the spring of 2012 I attended a Sierra Student Coalition travel training in Corpus Christi, Texas. I left the training feeling empowered, equal, important, accepted. The training brought a new way of viewing my actions. I knew that my actions taken on behalf of the protection of the environment were not confined to only myself; rather, they were shared by a whole group of youth leaders, the Sierra Student Coalition. I dedicated the next year of my life to hopefully help more people feel empowered, equal, important, and accepted by working with the Sierra Student Coalition -- and the experience has been life changing!"

Christina Novaton, a 25 year old from Miami, Florida: "After joining the Sierra Student Coalition, I was able to meet others who were just as passionate about the climate movement as I was. I wanted to make radical change in the world and realized that developing others along with myself would be the way to go -- the power to protect the environment lay within the youth of the movement. Therefore, to be able to bring in and develop campaign leaders to build the youth climate movement, confront oppression, and win tangible victories for sustainability and justice is the first step of our journey to making this planet a livable place for everyone."

Reanna Edwards, a 21 year-old from Ft. Myers, Florida: "Empowering youth to be leaders in the environmental movement is what will ensure its longevity and effectiveness. Seeing so many fellow young leaders dedicated to the health of our planet fills me with hope. Our future is bright because of them."

Rob Burton, a 24 year old from Birmingham, Alabama: "Other than the understanding of environmental degradation and climate change, I was personally called to do this work within the environmental movement because of having cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic disease that affects my entire body, but especially my lungs. So I am personally affected by the air pollution in Birmingham, Alabama. We have a long way to go before we can achieve a sustainable world, including ending environmental racism and classism, ending globalization and militarization, and stopping environmental degradation, but this generation gives me so much hope of being able to organize against these forces for change."

Cara Cooper, a 26 year old from Lexington, Kentucky: "To me, youth leadership in the environmental movement is really the only way that we are going to be able to face the problems that plague our world today. It takes young people, realizing their power, getting the skills they need, and stepping up to the plate. After all, we are the generation with the most to lose and the generation that has the diversity, technology, and ability to rise to the occasion. And we are."

The fight for the planet is one of organized money against organized people. If these young people are leading the charge, then Big Coal, Oil, and Gas had better get out of the way.

The next stop is Power Shift, a massive convergence of young climate leaders, coming up this October in Pittsburgh.

Inspired by Amazing Youth Climate Action Leaders
For me, organizing is about people. I love that moment when a new volunteer realizes that she has the power to effect change. That she has the power to influence decision-makers and make a positive impact in her community.